Crews gather in Grand Junction for assault on wildfires

DEAN HUMPHREY/The Daily Sentinel—U.S. Forest Service crews park their trucks at Grand Mesa Middle School during a layover on their way to fighting wildfires in Colorado and neighboring states. Other crews arrived at Grand Junction Regional Airport. Firefighters can get showers and meals at the school.

During the school year, the grounds outside of Grand Mesa Middle School, 585 31 1/2 Road, are teeming with schoolchildren. With school out for the summer, the scene recently has been transformed into a mobilization center for up to 200 firefighters at a time arriving from across the nation, waiting to be dispatched to wildfires ripping across the region.

Monday afternoon, about 115 firefighters were on hand, seated under tents outdoors or resting inside on the school’s gymnastic mats, but those crews would probably be replaced with new faces in a matter of hours, said Chuck Cook, a fire mobilization center resource coordinator.

“We’re trying to get them gone,” Cook said.

A mobilization center, like the installation at the middle school, hasn’t been needed in Colorado since 1994, Cook said. Coordinators there were waiting for word from a Lakewood-based fire response center on where firefighters would be most needed.

“This means the local resources that are usually available are used up,” Cook said of the influx of firefighters in Grand Junction who hail from far-flung states such as Delaware, West Virginia and Maine. “It’s a supplemental resource to rely on.”

Grand Junction was chosen as a location to mobilize firefighters because of its proximity to fires raging across the state and in Utah and New Mexico, Cook said. Also, Grand Junction Regional Airport serves as a good connector for firefighters flying into the state.

Cook said the middle school works well as a gathering place because it has showers and access to amenities such as meals from a local caterer.

Typically, a mobilization center is not set up in an established building and would have to be outfitted with a trailer specifically used for showering.

Firefighters who arrived in engines from their areas or on school buses from the Grand Junction Regional Airport work for their home states or the federal government, or they may be volunteer firefighters who signed on to work the typical 14-day firefighting rotation.

Andy Achter and five co-workers from Tahoe National Forest in northern California and Nevada headed east in an engine on a 900-mile trip and arrived at Grand Mesa Middle School early Monday afternoon.

Most of the year Achter works at removing dead trees and brush for fire mitigation or removing snow. He’s worked at putting out fires the past 15 seasons and has worked on other past fires in Colorado.

“I like to be where the action is,” he said. “We plan for it. It’s what we do.”

Six wildfires were burning in Colorado on Monday, with the High Park fire west of Fort Collins consuming more than 248 homes, the most destructive in Colorado’s history. Almost 116,600 acres were burning in Colorado on Monday according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Three fires were burning in New Mexico and four fires were burning in Utah on Monday, the agency reported.


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